Archive for March, 2010

This is my latest column for Jewish News:

It is actually a myth that more people now vote in reality television show finals than in general elections. The statistics don’t back the theory, not least because many reality television viewers vote multiple times. But there is a growing feeling that people like Simon Cowell now hold every bit as much influence on the great British public as does Gordon Brown. Mindful of the enduring success of reality television I suspect it cannot be long before the genre is given an injection of politics.

So how might political reality shows actually look? As recent months have shown us the approach towards Israel on our main channels is obsessive and unfriendly. From the BBC’s slanted Panorama show about Jerusalem A Walk In The Park, to Channel 4′s horrific conspiracy-theory Dispatches documentary fronted so pathetically by Peter Oborne, there has been precious little balance and sanity on the airwaves of late. The offices of the broadcasting world seem to have their fair share of morally-inverted freaks, so I’ve no doubt the reality television genre could quickly become full of just as much lunacy…

First out of the traps would come Britain’s Got Bigots. This would be an ‘exciting new spin on’ (read: unimaginative rip-off of) the Britain’s Got Talent concept: a talent show open to anyone who is disappointed with their own life and wants to relentlessly blame Zionism for all the world’s ills. The judging panel would consist of Israel-boycotting filmmaker Ken Loach, Seven Jewish Children playwright Caryl Churchill and (well, how  best to describe him?) Alexei Sayle. Annie Lennox would occasionally guest to sing about how Operation Cast Lead ruined her Christmas.

There would be no public vote because, as we’re constantly told during Iraq debates, it is morally wrong to impose democracy on civilisations unable to deal with it. The winner would be crowned ‘Britain’s Biggest Bigot’ and would gleefully receive a statuette modelled on Baroness Jenny Tonge. In stark contrast to its namesake, in this show diversity would always finish last. On a similar note, how about a new British take on an existing Stateside hit in the shape of Anti-American Idol? Sponsored by The Guardian it could be co-hosted by Michael Moore and George Galloway (I’m already thinking the set would need to be roomy) and would feature lots of bad teeth, French wine and manic chatter among contestants about how ‘those Jews’ have a stranglehold on Congress. The prize for the winner would be an all-expenses paid week’s holiday in Tehran. (Second prize a two-week holiday in Tehran. Boom boom!)

Meanwhile, after its Sound Of Music talent search proved such a hit, the BBC might find itself considering a Yvonne Ridley presented show called What Do You Do With A Problem Like Sharia? Here, contestants would be invited to present their own personal plan to deal with growing tensions over extremist Islam. The winner – whose name would be announced live on air by a heavily perspiring Jeremy Bowen – would of course be the one who proposed: blame everything on Israel. There must be lots of similar ideas on the back-burner including  David Milliband’s jungle-contest entitled He’s A Mossad Agent Get Him Out Of Here and Bill Clinton’s Camp David-based game show Deal Or No Deal. Perhaps a Halal version of Raymond Blanc’s The Restaurant might prove too tempting for the long-lunching commissioners of BBC towers, too. Either that or Britain’s Next Top Mullah.

It cannot be long until our evening television schedules are full of just these sorts of shows in which votes are cast and the good guys come last. Stick a few adverts in The Guardian and The Independent and there would be a stampede of people keen to take part I am sure. Disappointed Israel-bashers of the world apply: you have nothing to lose but your obscurity!

You can read Jewish News online here.

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When I was six years old, a short story I had written – it was called Invisible - was published in a book called A Wonderful Dream. The book was a collection of the best stories written by primary school pupils across London. I can remember vividly being called to the headteacher’s office to be handed a hot-off-the-press copy of the book. I opened it up, saw my work in print and enjoyed the feeling that gave me.

I loved writing at school and by the time I was 11 I had developed a specific ambition: to one day write a book that would be published by Penguin. It took me 25 years but this week that dream has come true as my book about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is published by Penguin.

As regulars will know I am a bit of a fan of Pesach. I wish all my Jewish friends and readers Chag Sameach.

Looking forward to the chance to expel Gordon Brown come polling day!

I love this video in which Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed by Efrat Dotan and Matanel Bitton, two young people with special needs. The interview was part of a project by Shalva, The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel. Interviewers from around the world could learn a thing or two from Efrat. Love her opening question particularly…

This is a guest post by Trundlemaster.

I approached my first trip to Israel with a mixture of apprehension and desire. I had a desire to see and experience some of the country, but I was apprehensive about ‘culture shock’.

Although my new wife – we married last year – had been to Israel several times before on various organised and independent trips, it was my first visit to the country and I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been given dire warnings about going, from people who had either never visited Israel or who harboured antipathy to the place. One of them even said ‘make sure that you come back with the same number of holes that you left with’ in a reference to terrorism and war.

What I found once I arrived was light years away from what the ‘know-nothings’ who get their news from the Beeb and the Guardian believe Israel is. I found a fantastic get up and go country full of people who were proud of their nation but who were polite, helpful and very kind especially when I used my rather poor Hebrew to them.

We stayed in Tel Aviv and explored the city’s restaurants and museums for some of the time and went from there to Jerusalem to visit The Kotel and to the fabulous air force museum near Beer Sheva.

We found the public transport system affordable, reliable and clean. It does take a day or two to get used to seeing armed national service personnel travelling round on the buses but that is more due to the fact that here in the UK we have been disconnected from the military due to having all volunteer armed forces, which means that the average British subject isn’t familiar with being around uniformed personnel.

Highlights of the trip apart from the Kotel were the Air Force Museum, the Haganah Musem and the Museum of the Diaspora. Jerusalem was a complete eye-opener. You can feel the power of the city’s spiritual meaning for so many, almost as soon as you step out of the bus station on Jaffa Road. To pray at the Kotel was amazing, the only way for me to describe the experience of praying there was that it was like – if it is not considered too sacrilegious – is to quote from the film Spinal Tap: ‘turning your prayer up to 11’. You really feel that the Divine Presence is strong there and it was a privilege to be there to feel that for myself.

To be there in Jerusalem after so much longing on my part was fantastic. At Seder this year the words ‘next year in Jerusalem’ will have even more meaning to me personally, having now been to Jerusalem and experienced some of the place. Leaving the place was weird, I felt that I’d left a little bit of myself behind in the city of gold and vowed to be back as soon as I could.

Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was incredibly upsetting and moving in ways that I find difficult to describe in words but I felt that I could not visit Jerusalem without seeing Yad Vashem. One of the things me that impressed me about the layout of Yad Vashem was the way you emerge from the memorial burdened by the weight of what you have seen into the sunshine and a stunning view over the hills of Jerusalem.

One of the things that most impressed me about Israel however isn’t something I saw or something I did but it was something that was missing from Israel when compared to the UK.

In the UK the media and the academic institutions seem to be dominated by people who are influenced by various types of Trotskyist thinking that exploded in academia and elsewhere after 1968 and this has contributed to the constant drip-drip of anti Zionist, and anti UK propaganda emanating from the BBC and the political establishment. This has led to a left-wing orchestrated ‘cultural cringe’ where people in the UK feel they need to apologise constantly for the UK or feel ashamed of who they are.

This I found totally absent in any intrusive way with any of the Israelis we chatted to. It was a pleasure for someone like me who has had his total fill of left-wing Jew haters to be in a ‘Land without Trots’ or at least a land where the Trots do not have the sort of influence that they do in the UK. I never thought I’d be so pleased to not hear the words ‘Socialist Worker, get your Socialist Worker here’.

People appear proud of Israel’s achievements, although sad that the nations around them refuse all offers of peace, even when it is plainly in the interest of the average person in the Arab world and for everyone else in the world for there to be peace.

I couldn’t help feeling that if Israel didn’t have to spend so much money on defending itself, it could be a major engine for growth, both economically and in human terms for the Middle East. Without the existential threats it faces, it could truly be a light unto the nations around it if only it was given the chance to do so.

We only saw a fraction of what we wanted to see as we were technically on our proper honeymoon and didn’t want to be too stressed with rushing round and round from place to place. We did feel that we deserved a bit of a rest.

This only means that there is more for us to see next time we go. It was lovely to be pampered in the hotel in Tel Aviv but having seen the quality of the food in the markets I really want to self-cater next time we go. However I will make a point of eating again at the wonderful Rochele’s dairy restaurant on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, I’ve never tasted a vegetarian lasagne as wonderful as the one I had there.

I want to be the one laden down with groceries from Ha Carmel Market rushing back to cook a lovely dinner for my wife.

I was completely bowled over by Israel and Israelis and cannot wait to go back. Go to Israel – it’s fabulous.

Here is part two of my interview with Jeremy Havardi, author of  The Greatest Briton: Essays on Winston Churchill’s Life and Political Philosophy, which you can buy now.

‘Turning to Jewish issues, Churchill has been accused of antisemitism. Is this true?

In general, Churchill had a genial attitude towards Jewish people and Jewish causes throughout his life. He admired the Old Testament and its Jewish ethical values, which he viewed as the foundation of Western civilisation. He also recognised the many contributions made by British Jews to their country. More to the point, he condemned antisemitism forcefully throughout his life, reflecting his strong aversion to tyranny in all its forms.

There was one occasion when he did pander to antisemitic sentiment and that was in 1920. He wrote a newspaper article in which he condemned ‘international Jews’ who he claimed were behind the Bolshevik movement. He loathed this movement with all his might and after noting that many of the most important Bolsheviks were Jews, called its leaders ‘these semitic conspirators.’ This was paranoid language beloved of today’s far right (and far left). But while heaping scorn on Jewish ultra leftists, he praised Jews in the same article as ‘most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.’

Is it true that Churchill neglected Europe’s Jews during the Second World War?

Before answering this directly, we need to ask what the anti fascist governments of the world could have done to rescue Jews from the clutches of an implacable dictator intent on destroying them. Their room for manoeuvre was somewhat limited, even if it also true that the Allied governments did not prioritise Jewish suffering for various reasons.

But as soon as Churchill received reports of the Nazis’ mass killings, he vociferously condemned what he called a ‘satanic policy’. When Anglo-Jewry organized a huge demonstration at the Albert Hall to condemn the mass extermination of European Jewry, Churchill sent a message protesting ‘against Nazi atrocities inflicted on the Jews.’ He also endorsed a policy of retribution in which it was made clear that the perpetrators of the Holocaust would face justice as soon as the war was over. This led to the Moscow Declaration of 1943 in which the Allies declared that they would pursue ‘the ranks of the guilty to the uttermost ends of the earth.’ Churchill could never have been indifferent to tyranny.

Was this just words for words sake?

No, he offered much more than words of condemnation and there were some examples of direct intervention which I cite in the book. In 1942 Churchill approved a request from the Jewish Agency to allow 4,500 Bulgarian Jews (mainly children) to enter Palestine. Sadly this came to the attention of the Germans and the Bulgarian government closed its border with Turkey.

Another notable example is his instruction for the RAF to bomb Auschwitz in 1944 following a request from the Jewish Agency. It was mulled over and passed to the Americans who then rejected it on logistical grounds. Though unsuccessful in these cases, Churchill was at least prepared to act for what he saw as a moral cause.

On another occasion, he insisted to the Spanish Ambassador to Britain that his country open its border with France to fleeing Jewish refugees, a request that was later granted. He also issued a warning to Romania’s leader, Ion Antonescu, that he would be held to account after the war unless he reined in the Iron Guard who were carrying out atrocities against the country’s Jews. These cases show very clearly that Churchill was prepared to intervene when he could to alleviate the suffering of Europe’s Jews.

What was Churchill’s attitude towards Zionism?

He supported Zionism and Jewish statehood for most of his political career, even if it was largely a peripheral concern. He recognised that Jews had a legitimate claim to the Holy Land based on their long standing connection to the territory and its centrality in Jewish religious life. He would often defend Zionism in the most romantic terms, particularly in Parliament where he had to face down his many Arabist detractors.

In the 1920s, as Colonial Secretary, he made a number of decisions that would prove crucial to the future of the Middle East, including the formation of a unitary Iraqi state. Some of his decisions, such as cutting off three quarters of mandate Palestine to form Transjordan, were not welcomed by Zionist leaders and he received criticism from some quarters. Nonetheless he continued to champion Jewish statehood before and after 1948. Indeed he even warmed to the idea of Israel joining the British Commonwealth in the 1950s. He also saw Israel as a useful strategic ally in the Cold War and supported their stance against Nasser during the 1956 Suez campaign.

Did he ever meet an Israeli Prime Minister?

Yes, towards the end of his life, he met David Ben-Gurion, a man he much admired (the admiration was mutual). Churchill described Ben-Gurion as ‘a brave leader of a great nation.’ Many years earlier, he had struck up a friendship with Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President.

Is it true that Churchill regarded Moses as the Greatest Jew?

He did. In one of his books called Thoughts and Adventures he wrote an admiring essay on the great Jewish lawgiver and paid tribute to Judaism’s ethical monotheism. When he met Ben-Gurion in 1961, the two men exchanged their ideas on who was the greatest Jew. Churchill nominated Moses, Ben-Gurion Jesus.

Are you writing another book?

I am currently working on a study of British war films and how they reflect changing perceptions of English national identity. It should hopefully be finished by the end of this year. I am afraid that I am not quite as prolific as you just yet!

What do you do when you aren’t writing books?

I am a freelance journalist and publish articles in the Jewish News and the religious affairs section of the Guardian. I also teach history and philosophy at an independent school and when time allows, enjoy amateur dramatics, table tennis, philately and radio broadcasting.

Which radio show do you present?

It is called jnetradio.com, an internet radio show with a Jewish point of view. I help to present the politics show on a Thursday evening (9pm to midnight) with my fellow presenters, Tony Honickberg, Richard Millett and Eliot Heilpern. It is a lot of fun and I urge all your readers to tune in. The web address is www.jnetradio.com and listeners should click on ‘Listen Live.’

You can visit Jeremy Havardi’s website here.

I thought you might be interested to read this story about Holocaust survivor Berthe Meijer who has offered a glimpse of the last few weeks of Anne Frank’s life. According to Ms Meijer, Anne told fairy tales to younger inmates at the Bergen Belsen camp.

On a related note I see that the diary of Ruth Maier – whose story has many parallels with that of Anne Frank – has been published. I’ve yet to read or even buy the book. If you have or do then please let us know what you thought.

By the way, you can see some rare film footage of Anne Frank here and read about the Anne Frank Trust here.

Here is my latest column for Jewish News…

I think it was probably when I was encouraged to bang my neighbour on the head with a spring onion that I decided Pesach is my favourite Jewish festival. I’ve been part of some tense family get-togethers down the years, but I had never previously considered the pros and cons of using a root vegetable as a dinner-table weapon during any of them. But there, at my first ever Seder at a London synagogue some years ago, I quickly fell for the charms of the Sephardic tradition as I assaulted my neighbour (the wonderful author Carol Gould) with a spring onion. My philosemitic side purred with admiration and I began to wish that Easter or Christmas featured a similar moment of playful vegetable violence.

Actually, I do have to suppress a giggle when I hear my fellow gentiles moan throughout December about ‘what a nightmare’ it is to prepare Christmas dinner. I’ve nothing but admiration for the women (it’s still nearly always women) who cook the Turkey and stuffing, but Christmas comes only once a year while feast-based festivals are regular occurrences in the Jewish calendar and  there is Shabbat to prepare for every week. It makes our knicker-twisting about getting the stuffing and crackers ready seem a bit silly, really.

I love a Jewish feast so I feel blessed that I am sometimes asked to Shabbat meals with Jewish friends and that I’ve just been invited for the second successive year to Seder with the wonderful Schogger family. For me the Seder is a powerful experience as it involves the re-telling of a story from the Torah that particularly moves me. Furthermore, I could sing along to Dayenu and Let My People Go all day and night given the chance. Not sure my fellow diners would be so keen to hear my less-than-dulcet tones though – oy, talk about suffering.

Thankfully, when the food arrives it is absolutely glorious, but then I am lucky enough to attend the Seder at the home of the very best cook in London. What a treat she serves up for us. All in all, my only issue with the Seder is that it’s all over so soon. Just five hours at the dinner table – what’s with the rush? The following morning we had Matzo pancakes for breakfast and they were so lovely they took me to the brink of tears of pure joy. As soon as I got home I tried to make some myself. So hideously did I fail at this task that I barely spoke for three weeks after and – to robust consensus – haven’t attempted to cook anything since.

Honestly, I still dry wretch just thinking about the sorry, soggy excuses for pancakes that I created. I would have been lucky to get one out of 10 for them on Come Dine With Me. Actually, as a fan of that Channel 4 reality series I think they should produce a Pesach-special called Come Lean With Me. These would be epic programmes that would take over the entire evening schedule for a week and it would be great fun watching the competitiveness build, particularly if the contestants included the spring onion moment. Channel 4 should commission it at once: it might even begin to balance out all those vile anti-Israel programmes they have churned out of late.

Back at the real Seder table I love the climactic declaration: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ as the proceedings finally come to an end. What a moving statement to conclude a meal with. As a festive feast finale it really beats ‘Right, who’s washing, who’s drying?” or  a belched “What time’s the Queen’s Speech on?’ Who knows where I’ll be next year but this year I shall be in Borehamwood, and gleefully so. Wherever you are I wish you a Chag Sameach.

You can read Jewish News online here.

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I purchased a copy of Anthony Julius’s book Trials Of The Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England yesterday. I will write about it here once I finish reading it. It is a very long and – on early perusal -  deeply intelligently and nourishingly written tome, so I will be giving it the time and deference it deserves.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.